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COLUMBIA, S.C. — For two days in South Carolina, Joe Biden sought refuge in a state he likens to a second home.
But even his large lead in early polls here couldn’t insulate him from the angst surrounding his comments about segregationists, or the reemergence of an older controversy — his changing views on abortion.
Biden, speaking at a Planned Parenthood forum two weeks after reversing his opposition to federal funding for most abortions — an early flashpoint in the 2020 presidential campaign — was confronted by a moderator: “There are some voters who may have concerns about your overall support for sexual and reproductive health, just given your mixed record.”
Biden, while disputing his record on reproductive rights was “mixed,” responded, “Let me explain what happened.”
He then pledged to work to enshrine into federal law the Supreme Court decision upholding abortion rights in Roe v. Wade.
So it was Biden left South Carolina, his early state firewall, still trying to repair the damage done from two missteps that are likely to surface yet again next week during the campaign’s first debates. Together, the episodes are serving as a reminder that significant elements of the former vice president’s record — and the political era that birthed him — have fallen out of step with whole swaths of the Democratic Party today.
“He still has support among a demographic that is older and more familiar with him,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an influential South Carolina state lawmaker who, in a private meeting with Biden and black leaders Friday, urged Biden to apologize for his remarks about segregationists. “But for newer voters … there are questions about his apparent failure to just apologize and move on.”
Biden has cultivated a wide network of support in South Carolina, whose first-in-the-South primary will provide critical test of candidates’ support among black voters. Democrats here know Biden from his years of campaigning — and vacationing — in a state where he delivered eulogies 16 years apart for both Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings.
On the eve of Saturday’s Planned Parenthood forum and a state Democratic Party convention across the street, Biden’s campaign announced endorsements from nearly a dozen current and former South Carolina mayors. Biden said it seems “like I’ve lived in South Carolina for a long time.”
His supporters hoisted “Biden” signs onto mechanical lifts in the state’s capital city. And as he spoke at the convention Saturday, he told a sea of Democrats he has “never been more optimistic about this country.”
“We ought to pick our heads up,” Biden said.
He called for ending private prisons and mandatory minimum sentences, and for requiring treatment in jail for people suffering from addiction. The crowd roared when he said he would work to decriminalize marijuana and “automatically expunge records for those who have been convicted.”
Biden’s campaign said that by July, it expects to have 35 staffers on the ground in South Carolina, with two more state offices opening that month.
But while Biden remains the early front-runner in South Carolina, as in other states, his opponents were moving over the weekend to seize an opening here.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is gaining momentum nationally, has more than 30 staffers in South Carolina, according to her campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was drubbed by Hillary Clinton by more than 47 percentage points in South Carolina in the 2016 primary, now has 35 staffers in the state.
Sen. Cory Booker, making his eighth visit to the state, scheduled events at a church and a barber shop on Saturday to coincide with the convention. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas has drawn large crowds, and Sen. Kamala Harris recently secured a significant endorsement from Richland County’s Bernice Scott and her “Reckoning Crew” of activists.
When Harris arrived at the convention hall on Saturday, she was joined by a drum line, paused to dance to its beat and said, “I fully intend to win.”
“My premise is that a lot of the Biden support that’s showing up on polls is name recognition, and the same with Sanders,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, a longtime Democratic operative who served as CEO of the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Convention committees. “But as Elizabeth and Buttigieg and Kamala, as people are getting to know them and see them more often, that’s where some of the shifts are happening.”
Though Biden’s competitors were no longer going out of their way to criticize him, they did not hesitate to between appearances at the Planned Parenthood forum and the convention.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told reporters, “I don’t think it should be so hard to apologize.” Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who is co-chairing Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, said Biden failed to demonstrate “cultural competency.” And Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina lawmaker and former Democratic National Committee member who has helped O’Rourke in the state, said, “If you’re going to run for president in this day and age, you’ve got to answer for past sins.”
“I don’t know if we need people who work well with segregationists to be the standard bearer of our party these days,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to turn that page.”
In an interview on Saturday with the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC on a set on the convention floor, Biden said his remarks at a New York fundraiser about his ability to work even with two segregationists, the late Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, were misconstrued.
The mere fact that the elements of Biden’s record under scrutiny stretch back decades — to the Hyde Amendment, first enacted in the 1970s, and two segregationist senators, both dead — was indicative of a broader disconnect felt by some Democrats to the 76-year-old’s campaign.
"Joe Biden’s been my hero in a lot of ways," said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist in Washington. "But the recent missteps are unforced errors that create openings for Democrats to question if he is still in touch with today’s priorities. I do think that when you start quoting senators who were in office in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that reinforces that.”
Feldman added, “I don’t think it is any secret that many people think his messaging isn’t as tight as the others.”
Nolan D. McCaskill and Alex Thompson contributed to this report.